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Reducing Bushfire Risk in Tasmania
Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP - Thursday, 24 September 2015
Climate change means that we will see more fires, more intense fires and a longer fire season in Tasmania. As outgoing fire chief Mike Brown said in the Mercury in June this year: "I think the evidence is undisputed that we are getting more extremes in the weather, and for Tasmania that is going to mean more bad days and longer fire seasons. Despite the sceptics, I am very convinced that we are getting more events of bad weather. We are getting longer fire seasons. It is not confined to just January and February. It might start as early as October and it might finish as late as May." The increased fire risk is just one reason why the Tasmanian Government should ramp up its efforts to address climate change. The increased risk of more intense fires and a longer fire season means that we also need to seriously review the balance of the budget in preventing fire risk in Tasmania. Yes, we have to continue our efforts at targeted fuel reduction burns based on scientific advice, but we also need to direct more energy into making sure that every person in the community, particularly the rural community but also fringe dwellers in urban areas, has a bushfire plan and has the best possible knowledge of how to survive if the worst happens and they get stuck. Our Tasmania Fire Service and Parks staff need the training and staffing levels to conduct the fuel reduction burns that modelling and ecological advice determine are necessary. It is on record that the Fire Service has said budget cuts mean that they will struggle to be able to deliver the four-year fuel reduction burn program that was promised by the Liberal Party before the election without cutting other services or operating in deficit. We have removed the services of Forestry Tasmania in firefighting and transferred this role to Parks, which is entirely appropriate, but the Government now has to make sure that Parks and the Tasmania Fire Service have the staffing levels they need to compensate for this loss. A report was released in July 2015 about the resourcing for the State Fire Commission from the University of Newcastle on behalf of the Tasmanian branch of the United Firefighters Union of Australia. That report points out that Tasmania 'lags behind the national average in terms of resources given to the fire sector'. In 2013-14 we employed 295 firefighters. That amounts to 57 firefighters per 100 000 people. Across Australia the number of firefighters per 100 000 is 64. To reach the national average Tasmania will need to increase by 11 per cent the number of firefighters we have. The focus of our bushfire management plans at the moment is to concentrate on fuel reduction burns as the main response to fire risk. This is an important part of our strategy but we know that on average one-fifth of fires across the state are caused by arson and in some regions this is as high as 35 per cent. The Greens took a policy to the 2014 election for an arson response group which would combine Tasmania Fire Service and police resources to tackle arson in a proactive and preventive manner, as well as following up on any arson attacks. We applaud the Crimestoppers and Tasmania Fire Service Stop Bushfire Arson campaign and hope this continues to be adequately funded. The Sentencing Advisory Council in its 2012 report into arson and deliberately lit fires recommended the establishment of a screening tool for juveniles and individualised treatment programs for adults and young people. That is something that we would certainly support as a sensible preventive measure. The previous government introduced a bill to implement these measures in October 2013 but it was not progressed, and this Government is yet to take up the recommendations of that report. The Greens strongly support the introduction of a bill that would give effect to the council's recommendations around identification and treatment for young fire-setters. The other preventable cause of bushfires is controlled or planned fires that escape or get out of control. Ten per cent of fires every season are caused by planned fires that get out of control. In some areas these burns have caused up to one-third of the bushfires that have occurred. Two of the fires that devastated Tasmania in early January 2013 were accidentally started by humans. Education delivered in written and verbal methods is essential to preventing such fires starting again. This will take enough funding and staffing to make sure it is effective. In an interview with the Mercury outgoing fire chief Mike Brown highlighted the need to educate and inform the public as improved fire fighting abilities can only go so far. He said: "We know that the number of days of high fire danger are worse or increasing. We know the severity of fires is increasing. While the Tas Fire Service does a fantastic job with firefighting on the very worst of days, it is going to be more about what the public does and how we can inform, warn and have the public acting." This is a very critical issue for us as legislators to consider because written information about developing bushfire management plans is hard to understand and act on for many Tasmanians. Half the Tasmanian population have such poor literacy levels that, according to the ABS, they do not have the basic skills needed to understand and use information from newspapers, magazines, books and brochures. By the Education department's own reckoning up to 75 per cent of rural Tasmanians may struggle to read and understand - Time expired.